One of the themes that was on my mind when I wrote The Shad­ow and the Rose was phys­i­cal beau­ty. The nature of beau­ty intrigues me, in part because as I’ve got­ten old­er I’ve been able to look at its pow­er more objec­tive­ly.

I know that, evo­lu­tion­ar­i­ly speak­ing, we are all wired to respond to phys­i­cal beau­ty: cer­tain arrange­ments of facial fea­tures and phys­i­cal builds are attrac­tive to us because on a sub­con­scious lev­el they con­vey good breed­ing mate­r­i­al. Sounds pret­ty crude reduced to those terms. Yet the way we respond to beau­ty is gen­er­al­ly beyond log­ic. We go slack-jawed, tongue-tied, for­get­ting our dig­ni­ty or our age or oth­er con­sid­er­a­tions just to stare, to admire, to want. It’s nat­ur­al, and it’s nature. It’s our nature.

I think too that, even as we grow more accus­tomed to see­ing beau­ti­ful peo­ple in movies and on TV and in tabloids, we are all still amazed to meet some­one beau­ti­ful in real life, to feel that pull. We may be jad­ed about celebri­ties and crit­i­cize the slight­est flaw in their pre-Pho­to­shop image, but for most of us it’s still not typ­i­cal to be sur­round­ed by beau­ti­ful peo­ple. And we’re also taught that it’s rude to stare. Movie stars we are allowed to stare at: up on the screen, they don’t feel our gaze. But when a gor­geous per­son is right there in front of us, it can make us flus­tered, feel­ing that con­flict between the desire to stare and the knowl­edge that it’s an intru­sion, a trans­gres­sion even.

An episode of 30 Rock made note of the perks that life offers the beau­ti­ful (in this case Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, an unde­ni­ably gor­geous man): the traf­fic tick­ets that go unwrit­ten, the puerile con­ver­sa­tion for­giv­en. A beau­ti­ful per­son exerts pow­er with­out even real­iz­ing it. I remem­ber a male friend telling me that an extreme­ly pret­ty girl walked into his work­place one day and asked his super­vi­sor for a job, and even though there was no need for anoth­er employ­ee, she was hired on the spot. That is the pull of beau­ty.

Many of us will nev­er know that kind of influ­ence. But the oth­er side is that beau­ti­ful peo­ple some­times feel they are not being tru­ly seen. The actress Vivien Leigh, wide­ly rec­og­nized as one of the most beau­ti­ful women of all time, was unim­pressed by her own looks and chafed when she was praised for her beau­ty rather than her act­ing tal­ent. That points to an inter­est­ing con­tra­dic­tion about phys­i­cal beau­ty: despite its almost mag­i­cal allure, it real­ly boils down to ran­dom genet­ic inher­i­tance, some­thing that has absolute­ly noth­ing to do with our char­ac­ter (unless being beautiful—or lack­ing beauty—shapes who we become, and to a cer­tain extent I think it can).

Almost every­body wants to be beau­ti­ful, and I’m def­i­nite­ly includ­ing myself in that assess­ment. And it’s strange to real­ize that being told we’re beau­ti­ful can make us feel great, even if it doesn’t change the arrange­ment of our facial fea­tures by a sin­gle mil­lime­ter. The truth is that being called beau­ti­ful can be short­hand for some­thing that is actu­al­ly much more mean­ing­ful than a com­men­tary on facial struc­ture: it can mean “You’re spe­cial to me,” or “I’m attract­ed to you,” or—as I have my char­ac­ter Tan­ner tell Joy, the hero­ine of The Shad­ow and the Rose—sim­ply “I enjoy look­ing at you.” (Or it can mean all of the above, which is the case for Tan­ner.)

Maybe what we real­ly want isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly to change the way we look, but to change the way oth­ers look at us. We may not be able to pass through life armored by phys­i­cal per­fec­tion, but to know that some­one takes plea­sure in look­ing at us, because we are us, is a mag­i­cal thing in its own right.

 

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